Monday, June 20, 2011

Prince Albert vs. The Prince

In what looks to be a strong free agent class going into next offseason, two players clearly stand above the rest. Albert Pujols does it all. Until this year, he was probably the best hitter on the planet, although now you’d probably have to hand that title to Jose Bautista. He plays great defense, hits for power and average, is nearly impossible to strike out (by far the lowest K rate among first basemen over the last 3 years), and has incredible plate discipline and knowledge of the strike zone. Prince Fielder, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly live up to his name… he’s not much with the leather, but with a bat in his hand the Brewers’ cleanup hitter is large (literally) and in charge. Weighing in at 275 lbs, Fielder is the second heftiest hitter in the majors, just behind 285-pound Adam Dunn. Fielder’s always been known for his impressive power, but he’s stepped it up a notch this season, and is currently on pace for career bests in a number of categories. Meanwhile, Pujols has looked decidedly mortal over the first two-plus months of the season, and last night left the Cardinals’ contest against the Royals in the sixth after sustaining an ugly-looking wrist injury on a collision at first base. Pujols reached out to catch a throw in the dirt as Wilson Betemit sprinted to beat out his grounder into the hole between second and short. Betemit ran into Pujols’ glove hand and the first baseman’s wrist bent back. Pujols immediately looked to be in agony, and left the game. The extent of the damage is unclear, but Buster Olney compared it to Cliff Floyd and Derrek Lee’s career-changing wrist injuries on ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning. He’ll have an X-ray and MRI today, but it’s universally assumed that the news won’t be good. So, with that in mind, I feel it’s time to start asking the question; Is Pujols the most valuable free agent first baseman set to hit the market?

The Case for Pujols:
Simply put, there’s a reason they call him “The Machine.” Pujols leads baseball with 52.9 WAR since 2005, is second to Ryan Howard in home runs, and leads the league in runs scored as well as all three triple-slash categories. He also leads by a considerable margin in wRC+, as he’s been 69% better than a league average hitter over that five-plus year span, and his 53.6 runs above average makes him the best defensive first baseman over that time according to UZR. He’s averaged 156 games played over the past ten full campaigns, failing to play 150 only twice, and playing in more than 140 games every year since he ascended to the majors in 2011. Up until last night, his durability was unmatched, although depending on the results of today’s MRI he could be looking at some serious DL time. Before this season, Pujols was expected to ask for a decade at $300 million or more on the free agent market, and possibly challenge Alex Rodriguez’s record for most guaranteed money, at $275 million.

However, with a disastrous start to the year, he won’t get nearly the dollars or years he expected. Disastrous, of course, is used only as a relative term. For most prospective free agents, hitting .279/.355/.500, while being on pace for 30+ home runs and 100+ runs and RBIs would have them jumping for joy heading into their offseason contract negotiations. However, for The Machine, the numbers that we’ve come to expect just aren’t quite there. Although some of this is simply due to bad luck, there are also a few underlying issues, a nearly 8% increase in ground ball rate and a reduction in line drive rate foremost among them. His defense has also been very average over the past few seasons, as he’s been 5.3 runs ahead of the average first baseman with the leather since 2009. This year, he’s only had 0.7 UZR, and although UZR numbers for single seasons (and especially parts of seasons) are notoriously unreliable due to the large samples of data needed for these stats to have predictive power, it’s a continuation of a trend that has the best player in baseball over the last decade looking more man than machine.

The Case For Fielder:
Though Fielder hasn’t had Pujols’ consistency, he’s been close. The big man (RIP) has proven to be quite durable, appearing in all but 13 of the Brewers’ games since his first full season in 2006. His 870 games played tie him with Adrian Gonzalez for most over the period, so any team that signs him can expect him to show up and produce on a daily basis. In that time, his 210 home runs rank him third behind Howard and Pujols, and his .389 OBP shows that he’s not afraid to take a walk. He ranks near the top of the league in most power categories, and his 141 wRC+ is in the top 10. However, this year, he’s taken his game to another level entirely. Fielder’s 20 home runs tie him for the NL lead, and he’s currently above a .300 average for what would be the first time in his career. He’s had OBPs above .400 for each of the last two years, but his current .418 would also represent a career best. He’s showing more power than he has since his breakout season in 2007, when he led the NL with 50 bombs, and his 180 wRC+ trails only Matt Kemp in the NL. Fielder’s actually been a positive with the glove this year as well (as I mentioned before, however, midseason UZR numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt), and although he’s essentially at zero, league average defense from Fielder would be an absolute revelation. However, maybe the most telling statistic for Fielder this season is his strikeout rate. After striking out in at least a fifth of his at-bats every year of his career up to 2011, he’s dropped his strikeout rate to below 15% while maintaining his always-impressive walk rate. If he continues to prove that he’s turned a corner in this regard, maintaining a whiff rate of 6.1% that would mark a career low by far, this is a very interesting (and extremely valuable) addition to Fielder’s toolbox. Although many have speculated Fielder won’t age well because of his body type, he’s still has some years to go before that aging becomes a major issue. At age 27 (28 next month), any team that signs Fielder will be picking him up just as he hits the prime of his career, making the expectation that he’d remain productive throughout the course of a long-term contract seem quite reasonable despite his Ruthian physique. Pujols, on the other hand, is 31, meaning that if this year is the start of a decline rather than simply a blip on the radar, a contract that lasts into his late 30s could leave his employers regretting their decision for a long while.

Right now, the prevailing thinking would suggest that Pujols’ sustained success has put him in line to be the best-paid free agent first baseman this season (assuming he comes back from his injury and provides something resembling his traditional production), despite his down year and age. Fielder will likely get close, and agent Scott Boras will certainly find big dollars for him somewhere, especially if he continues to produce at career-high rates. If I had to pull a number out of my nether regions, I’m going to say Pujols gets something like a seven-year, $200 million deal, while Fielder gets roughly the same money spread out over eight seasons. But if Pujols can’t prove his wrist is healthy by the end of the season, expect Fielder to be the most sought-after commodity on this year’s free agent market.

UPDATE: Pujols has been diagnosed with a non-displaced fracture of his left forearm. He'll miss 4-6 weeks.

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